Overview of Cosmology in the Scriptures

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By Rita Roy Chowdhury

The details in which the Puranic literature abounds reflect deep contemplation and keen observation of the phenomena of the world. The Puranic thinkers had their feet firmly established on the ground, in the world of experience, and this formed the basis of their philosophical analysis. This is their merit and their distinction.

Cosmology, according to contemporary lexicographers, is ‘the science of the origin and development of the universe’.[1] The Puranic sense of the term deviates from this accepted meaning: it is the threefold study of the creation of the universe, its destruction, and its recreation (sarga-pratisarga). Puranic thinkers were aware of a cyclic movement in nature. They confronted the intriguing question of creation keeping the dynamic nature of the universe in mind. In the Bhagavata, Narada inquires, ‘My Lord, kindly tell me the truth about this universe, what its characteristics are, on what it is supported, by whom it has been created, where it ultimately rests, by what power it is ruled, and what it essentially is.’[2] Narada voices the query of any ordinary, inquisitive person who naturally yearns to understand the universe and his or her place within it.

Puranic cosmological study is founded on a continuity of contemplation that has given us over five thousand years of history. The Puranas share a common platform with the Vedas and the Upanishads, and can best be understood when studied in association with the cosmological theories advocated by them.

Vedic Cosmology

The Vedic philosophers were firm believers in the theory of causality. If everything has a cause, then, ‘Who hath beheld him as he sprang to being, seen how the boneless One supports the bony? Where is the blood of earth, the life, the spirit?’[3] Where is the cause of the universe? What is the power or force that has coordinated this complex state of affairs? The Vedic seers viewed creation not as a new beginning, but as an arrangement and organization of all that lay in chaos. To bring harmony into the disorganized morass is Creation. The pre-Creation state is described in the ‘Nasadiya Sukta’ thus:

There was neither non-existent nor existent: there was no realm of air, no sky beyond it.… no sign was there, the day’s and night’s divider. …Darkness there was: at first concealed in darkness this all was undiscriminated chaos. All that existed then was void and formless. [4].

To bring order and harmony to the chaotic mass was the task of Vishwakarma, ‘the Sole God, producing earth and heaven’—‘Dhātar, the great Creator … [who] formed in order Heaven and Earth, the regions of the air, and light’ [5].

It seems highly significant that a similar undefined pre-Creation state of the universe is described in the Rig Veda:

What was the germ primeval which the waters received where all the Gods were seen together? The waters, they received that germ primeval wherein the Gods were gathered all together. It rested set upon the Unborn’s navel, that One wherein abide all things existing.’[6]

The Creator, as Hiranyagarbha, arose from the great waters and by his power and energy germinated the egg containing the world matter, thus setting in motion the process of Creation. From this standpoint, Creation was not a new beginning but a rearrangement, setting things in a proper order.

The Vedic philosophers found a unique way to relate the Creator and the created. Creation is actually the manifestation of the Purusha, the first cause, in all things living and non-living. How did he do it? By becoming the object of sacrifice:

This Purusa is all that yet hath been and all that is to be …
So mighty is his greatness; yea, greater than this is Purusa.
All creatures are one-fourth of him, three-fourths eternal life in heaven.
With three-fourths, Purusa went up: one-fourth of him again was here.
Thence he strode out to every side over what eats not and what eats.
From him Virāj was born; again Purusa from Virāj was born.
As soon as he was born he spread eastward and westward o’er the earth.
When Gods prepared the sacrifice with Purusa as their offering, …
They balmed as victim on the grass Purusa born in earliest time[7].

The ‘Purusha Sukta’, as this hymn is known, describes how all things and beings of the universe come from this sacrifice, and are none other than the Purusha himself. This significant observation helps to explain how the similar and dissimilar objects of nature have a common origin. ‘From that great general sacrifice the dripping fat was gathered up. He formed the creatures of the air, and animals both wild and tame’ [8]. It is interesting to note the attempt to harmonize our physical and intellectual realms at their very source. Flavoured by pantheism, the ‘Purusha Sukta’ attempts a pragmatic explanation of Creation. As I have already mentioned, the patterns of human thought appear similar through the ages. In Nordic mythology, Ymir, the cosmic world-giant, came into existence; from his body was made the world:

From the flesh of Ymir the world was formed,
From his bones were mountains made,
And Heaven from the skull of that frost-cold giant,
From his blood the billows of the sea.[9]

The emphasis is on transformation, not on formation. What is, is rearranged; nothing is added or subtracted. Through this is explained the natural balance of nature and the universal recycling process. Science calls it ‘conservation of energy’. We see such transformation everywhere in nature: when the flower unfolds, the bud disappears, and the egg breaks to make way for the chick. Likewise, in the process of Creation, ‘Ye will not find him who produced these creatures: another thing hath risen up among you.’[10]

The Purusha permeates the whole of nature:
The moon was gendered from his mind, and
from his eye the Sun had birth;
Indra and Agni from his mouth were born, and
Vāyu from his breath’ [11].

The world vibrates with his presence. The Creator secures steadfast all that is, by his law, rta. He remains beyond all change. This Being who is past, present, and future (what has been and what shall be) the Upanishads termed Brahman.

Upanishadic Cosmology

The cosmology of the Upanishads revolves around Brahman, the Supreme Soul, the creator, preserver, and destroyer of the universe. ‘He is the womb of living beings and the end of living beings.’[12] Brahman willed, ‘I shall multiply and be born.’[13] For this, Prajapati, the Lord of all creatures, produced two instrumental causes, matter and life, with the intention that they would multiply in manifold ways.[14] The Upanishad explains the origin of all beings: ‘That in truth out of which these creatures arise, whereby they, having arisen live, and into which they at death return again, that seek thou to know, that is Brahman.’[15] Again, the simile of a cosmic ‘egg’, which ‘hatches’ the universe, is used to describe the process of creation.[16]

Creation then becomes a threefold event—from the principal cause, through the cosmic egg, to the primary evolutes. These evolutes—earth, water, fire, air, and space, with their specific functions—are eternal and combine according to their nature to produce this world of variety in accordance with divine law. The source of law or rta—Brahman—is also the Virat Purusha, the material cause. How do the ancient thinkers relate the Creator to his Creation? Identity: the Creation is a reflection of Brahman. The moon is reflected in the water and breaks into fragments when there is a ripple; it is the same with Brahman. Imagine the reflection of the moon without the moon! It is impossible. Similarly, without Brahman, there is no Creation. To say that the primeval Being created the universe and then as the first-born entered into it, is only another way of saying that the Creator permeates the Creation, as a lump of salt dissolves in a glass of water, as blood runs through the whole body and is the support of life.

The ancient seers specially remarked on the cyclic order of natural events. Their meticulous observation of natural phenomena attests to their scientific and logical temperament. Whatever is created in time cannot be eternal. Consequently the universe, which was created in time (in a particular kalpa or cosmic era), will have an end in time. Its dissolution is not annihilation but dispersion: the basic elements remain unaltered, being parts of the divine Purusha, of Brahman. They are drawn back to the heart of Reality by a centripetal force, only to be set in motion once again. ‘At the end of a cycle all beings, O son of Kunti, enter into my nature; again, at the beginning of the cycle I bring them forth'[17]

   
Overview of Cosmology in the Scriptures

Cosmogenesis as a Sacrifice

There was nothing whatsoever here in the beginning. It was covered only by Death

   
Overview of Cosmology in the Scriptures
[Hiranyagarbha], or Hunger, for hunger is death. He created the mind, thinking, and ‘Let me have a mind.’ He moved about worshipping (himself). …

He desired, ‘Let me have a second form (body). He, Death or Hunger, brought about the union of speech [the Vedas] with the mind. What was the seed there became the Year Viraj. Before him there had been no year. He (Death) reared him for as long as a year, and after this period projected him. When he was born, (Death) opened his mouth (to swallow him). He (the babe) cried, ‘Bhan!’ That became speech. He thought, ‘If I kill him, I shall be making very little food.’ Through that speech and the mind he projected all this, whatever there is —the Vedas: Rig, Yajus, and Saman; the metres, the sacrifices, men, and animals. Whatever, he projected, he resolved to eat. Because he eats everything, therefore Aditi (Death) is so called. …

He desired, ‘Let this body of mine be fit for a sacrifice, and let me be embodied through this,’ (and entered it). Because that body swelled (ashvat), therefore it came to be called Ashva (horse). And because it became fit for a sacrifice, therefore the horse sacrifice came to be known as Ashvamedha. |4=Brihadaranyaka Upanishad, 1.2.1-7 }}

Purusha and Prakriti

Samkhya philosophers divide Reality into two ever-separate principles: Purusha and Prakriti, pure Spirit and nature or matter. They hold that Creation is a process of real parināma or transformation of the cause: Purusha is the efficient cause, and Prakriti the material cause of the universe. Purusha neither produces nor is produced. Prakriti is also eternal and uncaused, but it has the inherent potential or tendency to produce; indeed, it produces the universe, in proximity to Purusha. Purusha (like Brahman of the Vedanta) is the transcendental Self. It is absolute, independent, free, imperceptible, and unknowable—above any experience and beyond any words or explanation. It is pure, ‘non- attributive consciousness’.

Prakriti is the material cause of the world; its dynamism is attributed to its constituent gunas. The gunas (sattva, rajas, and tamas) are not mere constituents or simply qualities: the gunas are the very essence of Prakriti, and in consequence, of all world objects. Prakriti is considered homogeneous; its gunas cannot be separated one from another. Though the gunas are always changing, rendering a dynamic character to Prakriti, still a balance among them is maintained. Change in the gunas may take two forms: homogeneous and heterogeneous. Homogeneous changes do not affect Prakriti’s state of equilibrium, and no worldly objects are produced. Heterogeneous changes involve radical interaction among the three gunas, disturbing the state of equilibrium. This preliminary phase of the evolutionary process is initiated by rajas, which activates sattva; these two then overpower the inertia of tamas. Purusha is always behind this disturbance. The relation between Purusha and Prakriti may be likened to that between a magnet and a piece of iron. Though Purusha is entirely independent of Prakriti, it nevertheless influences Prakriti, prompts it, as it were, to act. As the gunas undergo more and more changes, Prakriti goes on differentiating into multifarious world-objects, becoming more and more determinate. This is the process of evolution, which is followed by involution. At the time of involution or dissolution, all physical existence and all world-objects resolve back into Prakriti, which again abides as the undifferentiated, primordial substance. Thus the cycles of evolution and involution follow each other. This Samkhya conception forms the background of Puranic cosmology.

Puranic Cosmology

Puranic cosmology follows vivartavāda, the theory of ‘apparent transformation’: ‘Know that the Prākrta (the creation of Prakrti) is the Vivarta (transformation) (of Brahman).’[18] The Puranic description of the cycle of creation-dissolution-recreation is note-worthy: it is here that the Puranas rise to the level of intellectual discourse. Creation or srsti is a vibration within the root cause which results in the sprouting forth of this world. As in the Vedas, the Puranas also refer to a ‘golden egg’, Hiranyagarbha, from which the universe emerges. Since Creation is evolution—a change of form, a manifestation of that which lay nascent—it must have been contained within something like a womb. What could that be? A projection of Brahman or an evolute of Prakriti in proximity to Purusha? Another question associated with this creative activity is, ‘Why did he create?’ Addressing the second question, the Brahmanda Purana observes, ‘With a desire to create he who is beyond measures, creates the great Creation’ [19]. Desire is accounted as the motive force. It is through desire that we strive to achieve. This psychological element in Puranic cosmology seems significant and adds a distinct favor to the Puranas, bringing them in line with the Upanishads.


The Brahmanda Purana describes the cosmic egg, the anda: These seven worlds are well established in this cosmic egg; the whole earth along with the seven continents, the seven oceans, the great mountains and thousands of rivers are established in the very same cosmic egg. These worlds are situated within (the cosmic egg). This universe is within the cosmos. Everything is established in that cosmic egg—viz. the moon and the sun along with the stars, planets and the wind as well as the mountain Lokāloka.[20]


As in the Vedas, so in the Puranas, Hiranya-garbha is lauded here by the sūta Romaharshana: ‘I bow down to Hiranyagarbha, the lordly Purusa who is unborn, who is the first creator of subjects, who is the most excellent one, through whom the Kalpa has been competent to have its characteristics; through whom the fire has been capable of being a purifying factor; and who is the self-born Brahmā administering all the worlds’ [21]. This conception brings to mind the biblical story of the ark of Noah, which carried all species of life during the deluge. As all life in the natural world appeared to the ancient sages to begin either in an egg or from a seed, the sages could have inferred the visible world to be likewise springing forth from an egg. The egg with its spherical shape, hollow and moist interior (resembling the womb), and hard shell, could carry and protect the germs of the previous kalpa after dissolution for the subsequent creation of the following kalpa. Seven layers covered it, seven natural envelopes—āpa, tejas, vāyu, nabhas, bhūtādi, mahat, and pradhāna. The cosmic egg can also be seen as the sun (hiranya = gold), the golden disk.

The mechanism of creation has been elaborated in the Brahmanda Purana as some sort of activity or movement which stirs the gunas from their dormant state. The gunas lose their equilibrium and the cycle restarts. Time (kāla) plays a significant role in creation and destruction. Time is eternal: ‘The deity as Time is without beginning, and his end is not known; and from him the revolutions of creation, continuance and dissolution unintermittingly succeed.’[22]

Creation thus involves two factors, or forces, or partners. The Vishnu Purana names ‘Hari’ the instrumental cause and the cosmic egg the material cause; the Agni Purana calls the instrumental cause Vishnu, the Brahmanda Purana, Brahma. ‘It is that acintyātman incomprehensible soul) who is the maker of all living beings. They (the learned) say that the Vedas are his head; the firmament is his navel; the sun and the moon are his eyes; the quarters are his ears, know that the earth constitutes his feet.’[23] Here again the Purana reverts to the Vedic concept of the cosmic Purusha, whose immanence is clearly the most consistent characteristic of cosmological conceptions.

References

  1. New Oxford Dictionary of English (Oxford, 1999).
  2. Bhagavata, 2.5.2.
  3. Rig Veda, 1.164.4, from Ralph T H Griffith, The Hymns of the Rig Veda (Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass, 1976), 110. The translations of other Rig Vedic verses in the text are also from The Hymns.
  4. Rig Veda, 10.129.1–3
  5. Rig Veda, 10.81.3, 190.3
  6. Rig Veda, 10.82.5–7, from Hymns, 592.
  7. Rig Veda, 10.90.2–7
  8. Rig Veda, 10.90.8
  9. Donald A Mackenzie, Myths of Pre-Columbian America (New York: Dover, 1996), 168.
  10. Rig Veda, 10.82.7, from Hymns, 592.
  11. Rig Veda, 10.90.13
  12. Mandukya Upanishad, 6.
  13. Chhandogya Upanishad, 6.2.3.
  14. Prashna Upanishad, 1.4.
  15. Taittiriya Upanishad, 3.1.
  16. Chhandogya Upanishad, 3.19.1–3.
  17. Bhagavadgita, 9.7.
  18. Brahmanda Purana, trans. and ed. G V Tagare (Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass, 2000), 1.1.3.24.
  19. Brahmanda Purana, 1.1.3.16
  20. Brahmanda Purana, 1.1.3.29–31.
  21. Brahmanda Purana,1.1.3.5–6
  22. Vishnu Purana, trans.H H Wilson, 1.2.18.
  23. Brahmanda Purana, 1.1.5.107–8.
  • Originally published as "Cosmological Reflections in Ancient Indian Literature" by Prabhuddha Bharata May 2008 edition. Reprinted with permission.